David Nalbandian had a superior head-to-head record against Roger Federer and such was his dominance that he managed to win the year-ending ATP Finals by beating the World No.1 in the final.
When one looks at the history of ATP Finals in Tennis, most of the players who have won the tournament are all Grand Slam winners. The likes of John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic have won the ATP Finals after winning Grand Slam tournaments. However, there is one individual who has only won the ATP year-ending title and not a single Grand Slam.
His career coincided with the rise of one of the greatest in the business. In the period from 2003 to 2005, Roger Federer won six Grand Slam titles. 2004 was a dominant year that saw Federer won the Australian, Wimbledon, and US Open. Even in 2005, Federer won the Wimbledon and US Open titles which guaranteed him a spot in the ATP Finals. On the other hand, David Nalbandian of Argentina was aiming to put his country back on the Tennis map after the exploits of Guillermo Vilas and Gaston Gaudio.
Nalbandian had a modest start to his Tennis career. In 2002, he entered the final of Wimbledon but lost to Lleyton Hewitt. He broke in the top 10 in 2004 as he reached the semi-final of the French Open. But, in 2005, Nalbandian reached the quarterfinals of the Australian, Wimbledon, and US Open.
However, Nalbandian had one envious record that no one else had against Roger Federer. Nalbandian had won the first five encounters against Federer. This included wins against Federer in clay, hard, and carpet surfaces. Although Federer got his own back by winning three consecutive matches, which included wins in the Australian and US Open, Nalbandian still managed to have a better record than him.
Nalbandian was initially not going to be part of the ATP Final. He only got to be part of the tournament because Andy Roddick had suffered an injury that ruled him out of the tournament. Nalbandian’s consistency in the year had made him one of the players to replace Roddick. Nalbandian was in a tough group, paired with Federer.
He lost the first match in three tough sets. But, Nalbandian bounced back by beating Guillermo Coria and Ivan Ljubicic in straight sets. In the semi-final, Nalbandian defeated Nikolay Davydenko 6-0,7-5. But, he was once again going to face Federer who had achieved the double bagel against Gaston Gaudio.
In the final, it seemed to be a mere formality that Federer would win the title. The Swiss won the first two sets in a tie-breaker. But, not many knew it at that time. Federer was nursing an ankle injury and as the match progressed, the injury started to impact the world number one.
Nalbandian pounced on the injury and won the next two sets 6-2,6-1. The match was now level and the fifth set produced a classic. Nalbandian and Federer exchanged blows and none refused to yield an inch. The fifth set went into the tie-breaker. Nalbandian raised his game at a vital time and he went on to win the tie-breaker.
Thus, Nalbandian became the first player to win the ATP Finals without having won any Grand Slam titles. Thus, in the period from 2003 to 2007, Federer had won four ATP tour titles but the only blip came in 2005 when he lost to Nalbandian. In the era of dominance by Federer, Nalbandian proved to be the ultimate stumbling block.
Things did not go well for Nalbandian after the 2005 ATP Finals title. He reached the semi-final of the Australian and French Open in 2006. But, he did not achieve much success afterward. Even in his head-to-head record with Federer, he fell behind. After the ATP Finals win, he had a 6-3 head-to-head record. But, Federer won five consecutive matches to turn the tables on the Argentinian.
Although Nalbandian won two more matches to level the record, Federer ensured that he would end the rivalry on top by winning the next three matches from 2008 to 2011. But, knee injuries in the next couple of years resulted in his progress being halted. Nalbandian was part of the Argentinian team that reached the final of the Davis Cup but they lost to Spain.
His final years were not so great. During his match against Marin Cilic in the Queens Club tournament, he was disqualified. He violently kicked a wooden partition next to the seated line judge, injuring the linesman and drawing blood. In 2013, he underwent shoulder surgery and announced his retirement from competitive Tennis.
It was a sad way for Nalbandian to go. But, he will forever be remembered for being the only person who had a superiod record against Federer in his years of dominance.